On the Saturday of Virginia Tech’s scheduled 2012 spring game, Andrew Motuapuaka committed to the Hokies. On the following Monday, he didn’t show up to his high school classes.
It wasn’t a reward for seizing a coveted scholarship from the in-state power and icon Frank Beamer. He was sick, drained and beat from a nine-hour weekend session honoring his heritage, fulfilling a lifelong dream. The day after Motuapuaka committed, he got a tattoo observing his Tongan ancestry.
It was the Virginia Tech senior linebacker’s first tattoo. It’s been his only tattoo, one that paints his left arm in tribal patterns commemorating his Polynesian roots.
“It’s tribal patterns that used to be on the clothing my ancestors used to wear,” Motuapuaka said. “I take pride in where I’m from, and this is who I am. I always wanted this tattoo, this tribal pattern, on my body. There’s Tongan, Samoan, Maori, Fijian patterns. I was so excited I got the whole sleeve done. I didn’t go to school the next day because I was so sick of holding in the pain.”
Before last season, Motuapuaka’s flowing curls made him easy to identify on the field. By the end of the 2016 season, a clean-cut Motuapuaka attracted attention for the numbers he posted. An All-ACC second-team coaches selection as a redshirt junior, he totaled a team-high 114 tackles.
Born in New Zealand to Tongan parents, Motuapuaka's father immigrated to the United States and joined the military. Motuapuaka eventually settled in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but he’s on the short list of players whose football careers began on the frozen fields of Central Alaska.
It was cold. It snowed a lot. Yet he remembers it fondly. It’s where the future linebacker first hit an opponent.
“There’s a lot of Polynesians and people like me [in Alaska]. It was cool, and I found them to grow close to my heart,” Motuapuaka said.
Motuapuaka was at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks for about four years before moving to Germany. He last visited Tonga in 2009 before enrolling in high school at Salem in Virginia Beach.
Utah offered Motuapuaka an opportunity to get back near the West Coast when it extended to him a scholarship as a member of the 2013 class. Two seasons ago, the Utes reached No. 4 in the country with a roster that included 33 Polynesian players. According to the university’s office for equity and diversity, per capita the state of Utah has the largest number of Pacific Islanders in the continental United States.
MOtuapuaka instead elected to remain near Virginia Beach, the town that he says “built me who I am now.”
“I’m representing here on the East Coast. A lot of Pacific Islanders are on the West Coast,” he said, “so I’m kind of holding it down over here.”
Enrolling at Virginia Tech didn’t come without issues. Motuapuaka enjoyed the campus party scene early in his career, and he estimates he was smoking marijuana daily. He said he stopped two years ago after he felt “the Lord touched my heart to make a needed, major change.”
Now he’s incorporated his own family culture to change his lifestyle off of the field. When he has some free time on weekends, he’ll often spend it with friends grilling. Motuapuaka considers himself the team grill master, and there’s a particular fulfillment when he freelances with the chicken thigh marinade to create a recipe worth repeating.
“That’s how I grew up -- around my family and always being on the grill,” he said. “It’s brought us all [at Virginia Tech] together.”